by Ernest Troost
I went to kindergarten in a suburb of Toronto, where each day my sister and I walked to school, winding between five-story apartment buildings and undeveloped lots. There was an ice cream man in the area that cut kids up with a long knife and stuffed them into his ice cream cart with the popsicles. It was a known fact that if you heard his bell he was too close for you to get away. In hindsight, I realize that this might have been a tall tale made up by older kids. Either way, we walked to school ever alert and fearful of hearing the tinkle of his bell.
When we moved back to the US and I attended first grade at St Mary’s in Stamford, things were not much better, though long knives and ice cream vendors were not involved. Instead there was a bleak asphalt playground and perpetual gray skies, ruled by bullies looking for skinny kids to pick on. I was an easy target. This is when I started making up stories. I’d found I could sometimes distract a bully with an astonishing tale, the more dangerous, the better. I once told two guys who were taunting me that, while I lived in Canada, I had fallen three stories down a mineshaft and it took firemen two days to pull me out. They were so enthralled that they forgot to hang me up on the chain-link fence by my coat collar that day. The next day my story was less potent so they hung me up. Another time I told them the thick patches my grandmother had sewn on the knees of my uniform pants were from repelling down a granite cliff to escape a Kodiak bear. Now, this story the nuns heard about, and they informed me that Kodiak bears live only on Kodiak Island off Alaska, not in Toronto. They enlightened me on the sin of telling fibs. They clearly lacked any understanding of my plight and could have at least praised my survival instincts. In Stamford there was also the ominous school building itself, towering over us like a giant slagheap, ready to collapse and smother us all during the next heavy rain.
Pencils without erasers were distributed in my first-grade class because with the Lord’s guidance you didn’t make mistakes. During penmanship practice I tried to rub out an error with the hard end of my pencil, but it smudged and ripped the paper. This was a punishable offence. I offered up the back of my hand to the nun with her ruler, while my eyes locked on the crucifix above the blackboard. I was hoping for a reprieve, or at least a well-aimed lightening bolt, but the weeping Jesus was giving me his stone face that day. I secretly pledged to run away and join Claude Kirchner’s “Merrytunes Circus” if she hit me again.
I was so relieved to learn we were moving away from Stamford before I started second grade. I remember my mom driving me into Ridgefield for my first day of school. The sun was out and the sky was all blue and encouraging. The lawns were green and trees were swishing about in the breeze. As we drove down Main Street, Mom and I picked out our favorite Victorian house. I rolled down my window and breathed the cool crisp air and took in all the clean, white picket fences. “This place is great,” I said to my mom. “It’s a beautiful town,” she said. “You’re going to like it here. You won’t need to make up any more stories.” I knew I’d have to wait and see about that one.
A bright green crosswalk was painted on the street--I would go on to recreate that crosswalk in every HO train layout I ever built. Also welcoming us to town was a big clock mounted on an elegant post across from the bank. It turns out that in the 1950s there was a trend of adding public clocks to town squares around the country. City planners liked the quaintness they added to the town center. The American Women’s Voluntary Services erected this clock in 1958. It was indeed a handsome clock, and immediately the town felt like home. Some part of me registered this as a new beginning. I would grow up in this town.
Mom turned down the circular driveway of Veterans Park School and stopped in front. The one-story school was inviting, with low gentle steps to the front door, just my size. After attending first grade in a gothic-revival monstrosity, a mashup of granite, brick, and slate, this midcentury design, with its clean lines and unfussy geometry, looked to me like a child’s drawing, simple and true. I felt safe stepping inside and waving goodbye to my mom. Architects Sherwood, Mills, and Smith had designed the school in 1955, as the town was experiencing its first boom in population. Mills also designed himself a midcentury house south of Ridgefield in New Canaan, which was beautifully restored to its original condition around 2019--but that’s another story.
I remember the sun warming the floor and the quiet stillness of the lobby. There was a display case on the right with awards and artwork by the kids, and on the left stood a secretary at a switchboard behind a counter of light birch. Everywhere there were big windows filled with swaying green trees. The secretary asked if I needed help finding my room and called my teacher. Then she walked me down the wide hallway to my room.
My teacher introduced me to the class, telling them I had lived in Toronto and Stamford. Everyone was friendly. At recess we played some games organized by the teacher, then she waved us off to go play. I stood there wondering what to do. A girl asked me if I wanted to go on the swings and I followed her over to the swing sets, which stood in the shade of magnificent trees. The lawn swept gracefully down the hill from the school to a huge field with a few distant baseball diamonds. It was like the playground had no boundaries. No fences, no pavement, only a sea of green grass. We swung higher and higher on the swings and I felt the gravitational forces swoosh in my belly and I laughed. The girl asked me what it was like living in Canada, as she zoomed by on her swing. I started to say I had been chased by a bear, but stopped myself. “It was pretty much like this,” I said. “Oh,” she said, “Like normal.” “Yeah,” I said, “like normal.”